Buchkinder e. V.
Unheard Stories

Buchkinder | Photo (detail): © Buchkinder Leipzig e.V.

Buchkinder Leipzig (i.e. Leipzig book children) is an island for unheard stories – a concept which has now been adapted all over Germany. In early 2013, a “Buchkindergarten” is to open.

“A tree stands all Aloan in a Big Medow. It stands their and is cold so the sun comes and worms it. Then a bird comes and sits on a branch. It tells the tree About the sowf. The tree wants to no more. The tree is so worm. It has so much strenth that it wants to run off strate away but its roots hold it in place. With its branchs the tree tares out all its roots and runs away, all the time heding towords the sowf.”

Learning or misspelling?

This is the beginning of a story about running away by Helena Weiß, who writes her own books at Buchkinder Leipzig and was seven years old when she wrote this one. On its journey, the tree meets with all kinds of exciting adventures. At the end, however, it finds its very own Arcadia when it takes the place of a giraffe that has been working as a guard dog: “The Tree serjested to the girarf you can run away and I’ll take your place.” An illustration then shows the tree standing guard in all its green glory, happy and content.

If it were handed in as an essay at school, this wonderful story would no doubt be returned to its author with lots of words underlined in red and full of corrections. It is not in an essay folder, however, but – in true Buchkinder style – in a proper, clothbound book accompanied by brightly coloured linocuts, of which 30 copies were printed. The book, amongst many others, can even be purchased in the online shop of the Buchkinderverlag, the publishing arm of the Buchkinder initiative. Is this simply teaching German children to spell incorrectly? After all the many spelling reforms in Germany, have we simply thrown in the towel and decided to introduce an anarchic, oral style of writing?

Lessons in reading for adults

Don’t worry – Buchkinder Leipzig is a non-profit organization which since 2001 has been teaching children how much fun language can be, without subjecting them to any pressure to perform. No corrections are made, as this would interrupt the flow of the developing story and would certainly block the narrative process for some children, believes Birgit Schulze Wehninck, the organization’s director.

This tallies with research conducted in recent years which has found that dictations no longer make sense at primary school level. The Buchkinder initiative is all about developing a playful and artistic relationship with language and about self-confidence, which can be boosted by giving children access to their own means of expression. Pictures and text are valued equally.

Practising writing at Buchkinder is a bit like learning to play the violin. If one insisted on hearing only clean and perfect sounds right from the start, the child would never get anywhere with the instrument. Taking delight in the sound of language is similarly important, but to date has received far too little attention in the German education system. In this sense, the experiments with letters conducted by the small authors in Leipzig represent, more than anything else, an enriching lesson in reading for adults.

Initially, the Buchkinder idea, which began in the living room of its founder Ralph Uwe Lange, was intended as a leisure activity. Meanwhile, however, schools are also interested in taking part in the initiative, which now has bases in several inner city locations, and are incorporating book-making into their lesson plans. The children’s love of story-telling is so infectious that the still relatively young project has already spread all over Germany.

Between Berlin and Nairobi

Offshoots have been created in 17 German cities – including Weimar, Munich, Berlin, Mainz and Chemnitz – and since 2002 Buchkinder has been invited to appear at the book fairs in Leipzig and Frankfurt. An initiative has even been launched in Naples, while Schulze Wehninck and her team have also produced books with African children in Nairobi, in collaboration with the Goethe-Institut Kenya.

Back to Leipzig, where last year over 200 children were able to turn their stories into books. For the afternoon course, each child comes to the initiative’s cosy workshop rooms once a week. In early 2013, thanks to years of hard work by director Birgit Schulze Wehninck and her colleagues, a Buchkindergarten will also be opened. Construction of the attractive building in Leipzig’s Lindenau district is already progressing apace. A miniature literary institute will be created here, though it will be dedicated solely to the enjoyment of language rather than the production of stars.

Butcher tofu and the future of the book

Given the current situation faced by small and medium-sized literary publishers, the work done by Buchkinder is possibly more than merely a symbolic milestone in Germany’s reading society. The highly imaginative Buchkinder stand at the most recent Leipzig Book Fair, with all its colourful stories of philosophical cows and magical silverfish, of evil butcher tofu and mice in love with matchstick men, makes a cheerful and optimistic stand against one-sided predictions of a world of eBooks. Looking at the beaming faces of the young authors, the future of the analogue book would appear to be in safe hands, with just as much interesting potential as its electronic counterpart.